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Travel, Teach, Live in Japan

4 Postcards from Japan
By:Vidagdha Bennett


The Hase-dera temple in Kamakura is wrapped in myths and legends. One legend in particular exerted a peculiar fascination for me. It is said that if one enters into the sutra repository and rotates the intricately carved wooden bookcase that houses all the sutras for the temple, one can acquire all the wisdom that the sutras contain.

I entered alone, in bare feet, and leant my weight against a wooden arm that protruded from the bookcase, doubting that I could shift the massive structure. For a brief second, nothing happened and then slowly, soundlessly, it began to turn. I moved with it, step by step, not knowing whether I was guiding it or it was guiding me, for it seemed that I was barely touching the wooden handle which had been smoothed and blackened by the touch of countless monks and pilgrims.

The rinzo turned effortlessly on its conical base, perfectly crafted long ago. The bamboo grove enclosing the Kyouzou archives cast cool shadows on the floor before me. Towering above, I saw and felt the presence of hundreds of sutras carefully wrapped in white cloth. I knew I could never thumb through their sacred leaves. Yet, as I traced concentric circles, I could swear that something of their wisdom descended.


Come to Hase-dera on pilgrimage.

Gazing at the sea, you see

White horses off the shore at Yui.

This long-ago song of a Buddhist pilgrim flickered up at me in the printed guide to Hase-dera temple. I had climbed Mt. Kannon, explored the Benten-kutsu cave, admired the exquisite camphor statue of the eleven-headed Goddess Kannon -- and yet I was still waiting for an inner experience that would transform me from a tourist into a pilgrim.

And then I saw the song and I realised that this monk of old was also something of an iconoclast. He does not mention the sacred temple and its statues as the objects of his quest. His focus is elsewhere. I imagined him walking straight past the temple towards the edge of Mt. Kannon, from where he could gaze out over the waves breaking on Yuigama Beach and beyond that to the broad expanse of the bay. So intoxicated was he perhaps by the beauty before him, that all formal devotions were forgotten. I imagined him failing to hear the evening prayer-gongs as he lingered to compose his song.

Somehow this ancient pilgrim captured for me the essence of pilgrimage. He had come to Hase-dera with fresh eyes and so he was able to savour its beauty and tranquillity. He invited us, across the gulf of centuries, to see through his eyes, to respond to what the Japanese call "sabi" -- "the sigh of the moment."

With a sudden insight, I realised the truth of what the seventeenth century poet-pilgrim Basho said: "Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of men of old, seek what they sought."


Through maples leaves, a sudden glimpse of the Great Buddha at Kamakura. The holy statue, cast in 1252 AD, is of gigantic proportions -- 13.35 metres tall and resting on a stone plinth as high as a human being. Originally it was enclosed by a wooden temple, but a tsunami in 1498 enabled the Buddha to shrug off this outer confinement and sit for all eternity under the canopy of the sky, his natural milieu, casting his benign gaze on mankind.

Absorbed in his own sublime meditation, and physically nearer the Heavens than the earth, the Great Buddha is nonetheless not at all aloof or remote. By some subtle artistry, the sculptor has fractionally inclined the Buddha's head towards earth, so that he seems to be aware of everyone who comes to him for shelter. His eyes, half-open, overflow with compassion and draw each soul towards him.

The figure is so completely harmonious in its proportions, so graceful and yet so simple, that one forgets it is a man-made colossus. On the contrary, there is something extraordinarily alive and intimate about this Daibutsu. One can even enter the statue from a little side door and climb a short distance inside the Buddha. Many people have said that this experience alone can be life-transforming.

The Buddha has been called the most perfect man who ever lived. He is represented in statues throughout the world -- but none, I would venture, has the power of this Great Buddha at Kamakura to lift the thoughts of all who stand before him towards the Divine.


It is July 13th, 2006. I am seated in seat 5E, car 13, on the Nozumi-Shinkansen bullet train from Hiroshima to Yokohama. We are streaking through the summer night at 300 kph, having come directly from the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, the epicentre of the bomb that was dropped on August 6th, 1945. I feel that I am speeding through time to the present era.

Just a few seats ahead of me, in seat 2E, an Indian holy man in pale blue robes has been writing in his notebook since the beginning of our journey. Standing in the aisle for a few moments to adjust my overhead bags, I glimpse a page and see that it is covered with exotic script.

At 8:32 p.m., he finally ceases writing and, in a quiet voice, announces to his students in adjacent seats that he has just completed his 13,000th song in his native Bengali language. The news travels quickly throughout the car and its occupants burst into spontaneous applause. I learn that this is none other than Sri Chinmoy, a modern-day spiritual Master whose philosophy of self-transcendence has garnered tremendous respect worldwide. The composition of 13,000 songs in Bengali during the course of a lifetime seems to me to be a phenomenal illustration of his philosophy.

Apparently, these songs represent only a portion of Sri Chinmoy's creative output. This 75-year-old, I am told, has also written more than 112,000 poems, drawn 15 million birds, offered upwards of 800 concerts, given 388 university lectures, published 1,540 books and even lifted humans and objects overhead all with the same kind of staggering volume.

Seated in car 13 on that summer's night, I marvel at my good fortune. I am an ordinary human being, but I have turned the sutra archive at Hase-Dera, gazed out over the waves at Yui, stood in the presence of the Great Buddha at Kamakura, and tonight I happened to be a firsthand witness at a most significant moment in the life of Sri Chinmoy.

Vidagdha Bennett

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